Spielberg invades Bayonne

What we got here is a failure to communicate

Like most of the literary criticisms I have read recently on Steven Spielberg's films, Charlene Engel's thesis called "Language and the Music of the Spheres" tends to be nearly as judgmental as my own.

Unlike many of the works I've read, however, she tends to impose her views on the work, but instead, generate many of her thoughts from what she finds in Spielberg's art. She does not, as many do, impose her presumptions on Spielberg - although she does give "Close Encounters" a more positive spin than it deserves.

Although I do not always live up to my ideal, I try to avoid certain clear sins when writing about other people's art. I try not to presume anything about the creator, and I try to look for patterns inside the work rather than paint my presumptions on the work.

While bringing biographical references about the author to a work is a legitimate tool of criticism, I tend to stick to the text unless the reference is extremely relevant to the tale. You might for instance point out why Spielberg bases some of his fictional tales in New Jersey and refer to his childhood when he moved to a town outside of Camden from Ohio.

I also question psychological studies of work that focus on author rather than the work, although I often use some of the same tools in an attempt to figure out what the author consciously intended.

I could care less as to what motivated Spielberg to repeatedly play with family relations as to the art of how he did it, and the possible meaning he intended to convey by doing it.

For me, art is a communication, and I want to fully appreciate what is being said.

Spielberg's work is so rich with patterns and symbols, he represents a challenge to viewers that few other filmmakers do. What he is trying to do or say, whether he succeeded or not, become areas of interest. In re-viewing his films again over the last few weeks, I have come to the conclusion that he is so deliberate an artist that you cannot afford to overlook any detail as unimportant.

I started this whole thing by looking for clues in older films to what we might find in the upcoming release of War of the Worlds - then lost myself in Spielberg's creativity, becoming more and more amazed at what I found in his master pieces such as ET, Jaws, Close Encounters, and Jurassic Park.

Even pieces that I did not like such as AI, fascinated me, and forced me to look at his work for effectiveness, character development, plot denouement and - of course - the amazing visuals. Each film is a gold mine, thick with nuggets of art - some films are more wealthy, some pull together better at a whole, but all are so involved that any student of film or literature could make a career of their study.

Because self education has left significant gaps in my ability to recognize all the important references in Spielberg's works, I have turned to better educated critics to provide me with clues to the Spielberg puzzle, people who have the specific knowledge I lack to catch references to which I have no experience. Even then, those critics I have encountered to date, I often disagree with their conclusions. I merely hope some of their ability might rub off on me, just as by attempting to get inside Spielberg's head to look out his eyes at a scene, I hope some of his genius might spill into my head as well and provide me with added inspiration for my own art.

Although critical of Engel's assumption that "Close Encounters" has a positive view of human/alien contact, her observations have great merit, and form a good foundation for a closer examination of Spielberg's work and what may be his intentions when designing his stories in the fashion he does.

I disagree with Freudian critical approaches because it appears to be dedicated to a study of the artist, not the art - with a few rare exceptions. My love affair with the Freudian approach begins and ends with why a character acts in a particular way. Therefore, Devil's Tower in Close Encounters has no Freudian significance for me - though I can easily how easily such critics might get caught up in thinking it is one large phallic symbol and that the movie is largely an effort to inject humanity's seed inside the mother ship.

Fortunately, Engel seems to have tapped into the mystical, maybe even religious themes Spielberg may have deliberately intended - so that he selected Devil's Tower for its spiritual significance as well as for its magnificent visual effect. In some ways, the Dreyfus character is Moses, and Devil's Tower, Mt. Sinai.

Engel implies that the two main characters, stripped of their civilized preconceptions, revert to a kind of Adam and Eve, with Devil's Tower as a kind of conduit back to The Garden of Eden.

Many of the Biblical references, Engel notes, come from the Book of Genesis.

"We are being told that this film is about the beginning of something," she writes, "not the end."

But Engel greatly misses the mark when she attempts to separate "Close Encounters" from the rest of Spielberg's films.

"Spielberg," she writers, "Is occasionally found among the pessimists. Many of his films depend on someone doing something forbidden."

Elsewhere, she writes, "Close Encounters belongs solidly in the optimistic Science Fiction camp. It portrays new technologies as a natural and expected outcome of human development, an indication of health and growth and posits (I hate that word - AS) the encouraging view of creativity and capability and aspiration that the universe is more than a collection f rules waiting to be broken, and that ordinary people can do extraordinary things."

Engel in her exuberance to sing the praises of Close Encounters missed the mark by a fraction of an inch, laying out the frame work of a positive science fiction tale when Close Encounters seems to embody the same themes and same philosophies as most Spielberg films - all falling (as in Engel's terms) on the positive side of SF, even if they do not appear that way at first glance.

Essentially, the story follows two of the many characters who have had close encounters with alien space ships. These two are obsessed by something that turns out to be a call for them to go to a place called Devil's Tower where they are meant to meet the aliens. The film follows their turbulent adventure and the eventual success of the character played by Dreyfus - who is taken aboard the mother ship and sails off into God knows where.

Close Encounters is filled with characters, all doing the wrong things - including the heroes for whom their experience with alien contact has become a calling.

The engineer alienates his friends, neighbors and family in pursuing something he cannot explain. The woman hero loses her children to an alien adduction. Both disobey social order in their desperate attempt to reach Devil's Tower where they again disobey civil authority when they bolt for the mountain after they had been caught, chancing even death by tearing off the gas masks they were told to wear.

Engel called Close Encounters "hopeful" and yet the film reflects an unfortunate human trait for persecuting those people called by some spiritual force -- a force the masses may not recognize or approve of, while civil authorities may seek to dominate the spirit or exploit it.

While there are characters pure of heart in Close Encounters, there are also those characters that would use their connection with the spheres for their own diabolical purposes, and in the process would fake a disaster in order to keep their activities secret.

Spielberg revisits these themes in his TV special "The Taking," but did not manage to do better than when he made Close Encounters - although he gave the aliens in the later version more edge, shaping them into more authentic Biblical gods with whom human kind has always maintained an uncomfortable relationship, gods who could turn a woman into a pillar of salt for merely giving into her own basic human curiosity when such gods instructed her against her looking back at the city of sinners the gods have decided to destroy.

As the Biblical story Job long proved, the gods have their own reasons for making demands on mortals and as Engel correctly points out, Spielberg displays a remarkable talent for his "loving portrayal of the details of everyday life at the same time he is tearing that life apart," a condition you can bet will become a vital piece in the War of the Worlds in which he again revisits that normal life. Each of the critical Spielberg films wrecks the normal life. In AI, the robot was just becoming accepted as the substitute for the son in a coma when that son returns to wreak havoc and ruin on him, and cast him out in much the way the brothers cast out Joseph (and his remarkable coat of many colors) in the Old Testament. In Poltergeist, Spielberg assaults the normal life as well when the father decides to build a swimming pool in a back yard where the bodies of a one-time grave yard are still buried. In Jaws, he disturbed the ordinary life by introducing a symbol of evil, a shark. In ET, he drags in an abandoned alien.

The violation of normal is such a vital piece in Spielberg films - even when the original story may not call for it - that even without reading the War of the Worlds script you can expect it - especially because of the characters he had presented to fulfill the plot line. And, of course, this repeating occurrence raises questions as to why.

Engel touches upon the answer, but does not quite get to the root when she writers, "critics have often commented on the child-like innocence of the UFO seekers in Close Encounters, but this shows Neary (the Dreyfus character) as a man who has lost his innocence. He no longer belongs in the green paradise of suburbia."

Engel's comparison of suburbia to Eden could have been mockingly ironic had she been less sincere in her presentation.

Thus - if you believe in this thread -- Spielberg gives us in Close Encounters (as well as in his other films) a retelling of the Book of Job, the story of Joseph, and the myth of Eden, but also strongly hints of the Judo-Christian idea that a person must be "born again" in order to enter the realm of the gods.

In many ways, his heroes become prophets not dissimilar to those found in the Old Testament, and as such, suffer the anguish perpetually associated with those who connect human kind with the spiritual realm, struggling against the demands the gods make of them, while knowing that they cannot or should not resist.

Engle goes on to point out, "There is something beyond that world which he (the Dreyfus character) cannot ignore. No one asked Neary if he wants to be implanted with a vision. The vision is simply given to him and once it is there, he has no choice to respond to it. It means something important. It is something important."

This is the stuff myths are made of, and according to myth scholar Joseph Campbell -- to which Spielberg had some passing contact by way of George Lucas - the Dreyfus character in Close Encounters is being "called."

For those of you who are courageous enough to suffer through these essays, you will no doubt be inflicted in the future with a closer look at myth and Spielberg, but for now it is enough to say that "the calling" appears to be one of the key fixtures in Spielberg's mythology, an important element in understanding Close Encounters as well as his other films.

Engels comes perilously close to solving the Spielberg enigma when she delved into what the music means in Close Encounters. Nearly is Moses, Devils Tower is Mt. Sinai, if not in fact, then in symbolic representation. They are the mythological icons to which Spielberg's characters match up, Nearly must go to the Mountain just as Moses or Mohammed did.

In Myth, characters from earth are called upon to act as agents for the supernatural, to help solve some pressing human need - but as in The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien where Frodo must give up the Shire he so desperately struggles to save, so must Nearly.

Who gets chose in Close Encounters or Jaws and what each must over come is the stuff upon which Spielberg's better tales are based - and the stuff which hopefully War of the Worlds will also have.

As the New Testament notes, a person must become like a child to come to the gods.

In Close Encounters, as in many other Spielberg films, these children or child-like people get to talk to ghosts, goblins and gods - and in the process get persecuted by society. But the chosen people have no choice. They are caught in an unenviable position. If they choose to recognize the calling, Mankind persecutes them. If they choose to ignore the call, they lose hope, cheer and any chance at joy. In Spielberg's tales, there is the same themes that underline some of the great Jewish literature, choices between sufferings.

In Close Encounters we see scenes in which storm troopers chase the chosen people from one mountain side and later threaten them with exposure to a deadly gas - a very obvious reference to the historic attacks made on the Jewish people over the centuries, from the scattering of the Jews by the Romans after the fall of Jerusalem in 78 A.D. to the gas chambers of the Nazi's 20 centuries later.

Equally obvious, AI demonstrates the same themes as "real" people (i.e. the Aryan race) attack the robots, putting them to death as sport because the robots can out perform real people in various functions.

Close Encounters is hopeful in the same depressing way Jewish history is hopeful, the way Christian myth is hopeful in looking forward to some future point where each soul will be relieved of basic human suffering. Like all prophets, Nearly and his woman companion are consumed with the calling neither ever asked for.

Closely related to this, of course, and the point Engels tried to make in her essay, is just how these chosen people get to speak to the gods or to the spiritual side of the universe. While Stephen Jay Gould leveled some sharp criticism at Spielberg's adaptation of the book Jurassic Park, it is maybe that Spielberg used the movie as a vehicle to promote a drastically different point of view. In the book, the mathematician served as a vehicle for the author's absurdist theory of Chaos, that life had no plan nor creator but was the result of random numbers and accidental mixing of chemicals (it is vastly more complex but this thumb nail will do for this comparison).

Where as the book sings the praises of Chaos as the cause of creation, that life is an abstraction that as meaning only in the random collision of numbers, the movie - under a very conscious and manipulative director Spielberg, reverts to the more fundamental and 19th century concepts of science fiction rooted in the work of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein. Whereas the book's philosophy seems to poo poo the efforts of science to manipulate factors over which humans cannot possibly have control (i.e. we cannot possible account for every contingency), the movie reverts to the traditional philosophy that men should not meddle in the affairs of gods.

Without putting words in Spielberg's mouth or ideas in his head, for me Jurassic Park and some of his other better films reaffirm a legitimate criticism of empty progress - that advances in technology must be matched by an spiritual evolution otherwise life - even with the marvels of modern science - equals empty and pointless existence.

Gould's questioning of why the park owner turns from a truly evil character in the book into a somewhat sympathetic if inept character is the movie is better explained when you realize that the philosophy of the movie seems almost if not quite opposite the one in the book. For Spielberg, the meddling with nature is misguided, not evil - as seems to be the case in many of Spielberg's movies such as ET and Close Encounters.

The Mathematician in the book may well represent the root of evil, not the park owner, and why the hippie-like bone digger and the two kids are given the ability to communicate with the gods, since they are the closest to innocence, even in the Spielberg modified plot. Of all the characters presented in that film, they are the most worthy - as the Dreyfus character was in Close Counters and the young boy was in ET, the young girl was in Poltergeist, the fearful police chief in Jaws, the unwanted robot in AI, and perhaps the troubled Ray Ferrier in War of the Worlds - and the most acceptable to the gods - because each in his or her way seems to have been rejected by the society in which he or she lives.

As will be pointed out in a later essay on myth in Spielberg, the greater punishment is often inflicted upon the hero who refuses the call of the gods once a hero has been selected for this special relationship. The hero must accept or risk the wrath of the gods. Even delaying to choose can have immensely negative consequences, such as with the police chief in Jaws who would have closed the beaches but allows himself to be seduced by the mayor into keeping them open. This later requires a blood sacrifice to amend in the death of a swimmer, and the eventual trial at sea - which might have been avoided.

How Spielberg's heroes communicate with the gods appears to vary from movie to movie. But for the most part, this involves a spiritual bonding.

Elliot - in ET - as Isla J. Bick accurately points out in her essay, "Looking back at ET," is in telepathic contact with ET when he goes berserk in the classroom and frees all the frogs from the biology class. Bick, however, misses the point of the scene. It is this connection with the gods that allows Elliot to make a judgment of science. He clearly equates each frog with ET, and the use of science as a means of slaughtering that special race of innocent (perhaps chosen) beings.

In Jurassic Park, communication is a bit trickier, suggesting that even the innocent may not be able to talk easily with the savage side of nature, and that innocents need to find like innocents while the hunters of both worlds do little but slaughter each other.

While my wife - with her degree and masters from Julliard - was very intrigued by the musical communication between species in Close Encounters, as Engel pointed out, the musical exchange seems to have taken place after the real communication had already happened, a communication on a spiritual level with the chosen people, while everyone else had to rely on modern technology.

In Poltergeist, the vehicle of communication may be the TV set, but the real connection is spiritual. The ghosts are drawn to the girl's innocence, mistakenly believing her glow is the light they need to follow to the next level. Although this is manipulated by an evil force, the beast, the girl is called into that other world in order to help guide these people to their proper road.

My wife, who has suffered through my obsession to re-visit each of the handful of Spielberg films we own, believes Spielberg frequently plays with the concept of deliberate misunderstanding - a failure of the masses to listen to warns of prophecy. This requires the interaction of a select few who must struggle and suffer, not merely to enlighten the masses, but often to sacrifice themselves on the behalf of the masses in order to satisfy the will of the gods. In many cases, Spielberg gives us a single character that epitomizes this ignorance such as the park owner in Jurassic Park, the mayor in Jaws, the developer in Poltergeist, and the scientists in ET.

Of course, the masses often persecute the chosen for delivering a message the masses refuse to hear - such being the fate of all prophets.

Spielberg menu

Main Menu

email to Al Sullivan